Flood defences set for delay

MORPETH got the news it was dreading on Friday, as plans for the town’s new flood defences are set to be put on hold.

At a meeting of the Northumbria Regional Flood Defence Committee (RFDC), the Environment Agency confirmed that in the proposed (indicative) budget for 2011/12, the Morpeth Flood Alleviation Scheme will not receive the £4million funding which had been anticipated.

The news is a particular blow to those who were hit by the town’s worst flood on record in September 2008 and the Morpeth Flood Action Group (MFAG) – made up of flood victims – who have campaigned for new defences to be built as soon as possible.

There have been concerns about this happening since it was revealed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) that the agency’s flood management allocation would fall by 17 percent next year.

Other options are now being looked at, including the possibility that there may be changes to the original plans for upstream flood water storage areas and new defence walls in the town centre to give a one-in-137 year level of protection (about the same as the 2008 flood).

The funding cuts have meant that projects have now been prioritised on the basis of their costs and benefits using national outcome measures (OM) criteria and only those which score 14 or more will go ahead this year.

The proposed £17million Morpeth scheme has a rating of 5.06 under the system, which was considered by officials to be a good score in the middle of last year.

Ian Hodge, Area Flood and Coastal Risk Manager for the Environment Agency, said: “It is unlikely that the scheme will progress in the next financial year. The final decision will be made by the Environment Agency Board in February.

“Officers will continue to work very hard on the project and we will look into how it can progress in the most beneficial way possible if affordability issues mean it can’t be delivered in its current form.

“Other options we may need to consider to make the scheme less expensive include looking at the upstream storage and flood walls individually, phasing the current scheme over a longer period of time, or reducing the level of protection to one-in-100 years or one-in-75.

“We may also look for external investment from the private sector, including potential benefits-in-kind work from developers in Morpeth, and hold talks with the county council to find out if it can do anything.”

The scheme is still awaiting final approval that it meets the criteria for having a business case from the agency’s Large Project Review Group, which Mr Hodge says will hopefully be received at the end of the month or in early February.

MFAG Chairman Alan Bell said: “We were half expecting it, but we are still devastated by this news.

“At best it will be delayed for a year, but we believe it is more likely to not go ahead in the form that the Environment Agency has been working to in the past two years.

“We are now very concerned that we will never get flood protection to a level that would have protected us from the flood in 2008, which would greatly worry everyone who experienced the devastation.

“We appreciate the efforts of the regional Environment Agency team and it’s very unfortunate that the financial situation has had such a major impact on Morpeth.

“We would like national agency people and politicians to come to the town to explain why there has been a delay to the alleviation scheme.”

The Northumbria RFDC, made up of councillors from authorities across the North East and Defra appointees, has written to the Chairman of the Environment Agency Board to the stress the importance of the Morpeth scheme going ahead as quickly as possible.

• In-depth coverage of the announcement will feature in next Thursday’s Morpeth Herald.